UAV Anti-Poaching Surveillance – Does it work?

To answer the question does UAV anti-poaching work perhaps it’s best to bracket what we are trying to get at. On the one hand, and on first glance, it seems a no-brainer: The drones fly over; they survey the ground; their data reveal the poachers. Done deal. Explain it to someone and they understand before your second sentence.
At the other end of the bracket you have General Jooste, head of anti-poaching at Kruger National Park in South Africa, laying down his categoric view that drone surveillance has not resulted in any (i.e. not one!) poacher arrests. Kruger is one of the leading, if not the leading, areas for UAV anti-poaching work. If there is an expert in this field, Jooste is he.
So what is going on?
A clue to sorting out this conundrum is Dr. Nir Tenenbaum’s recent interview. Tenenbaum is an expert too and here he drills down into the detail that’s needed to get an answer to our question. It turns out just flying a drone with a camera isn’t enough. A lot of projects seem to have had eureka moments, snatched up the first drone with a camera and rushed off to Africa. What they didn’t do, and what one notes online reading about the operations, is to synch their technology, their concept and Africa’s formidable scale.
Dr. Tenenbaum points out that a lot of UAV anti-poaching projects are actually doing what we at Bathawk call “Direct Ranger Support” and Dr. T. calls “Response Missions”. Let’s be clear, such capability could be VERY advantageous and helpful to anti-poaching efforts. However as they are in support of rangers, rather than the lead element, they reflect or even magnify any weakness of a particular ranger service’s capacity. They extend ranger’s eyes, they facilitate pursuit, but they don’t actually find poachers. Thus General Jooste’s statement.
Leaving the Tactical and moving to the Strategic.
The implication of the present state of technology is that the capacity to “Detect Humans”, across the areas anti-poaching requires, is quite different from what is required for the Response Mission. Following a person is quite a bit easier than finding one and finding a person in the bush is the crucial issue in a strategic UAV anti-poaching surveillance service. A service which provides the essential intelligence to rangers, rather than vice versa. The technology to do this is there but requires a larger aircraft with a greater payload.
That sounds expensive; and it’s true the capital cost of the strategic option would be a multiple of the tactical; but the bigger aircraft flies higher, sees further, spends longer in the air and has a greater range. When you add it all up, and do the calculation based square kilometers over the life of an aircraft, it turns out the strategic model is actually cheaper – considerably.
Each model also requires a concept that details how the equipment and operators would be organized to effectively deliver their service to rangers. Training, transport, logistics and maintenance all need to be worked into a package that fit the landscape and ranger operations. It may be easier at first go to add a tactical UAV to a ranger patrol, but if you want a plan to deliver aerial reconnaissance across multiple protected areas each with thousands of square kilometers the tactical model turns out to be problematic in the extreme.
Bathawk Recon’s “Big Ground” concept integrates the Super Bat DA-50 with the TASE200 EO/IR gimbal and a strategic, replicable concept. This is a plan that reconciles what General Jooste and Dr. Tenenbaum are saying with the title of this essay. UAV Anti-Poaching Surveillance: Yes it can work.


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